Positive relationships

Supporting a SEND framework

SEND play might look a little different, so we need make sure we’re observant
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September 29, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down: 
  • In part 1, Kerry Payne shows why play should be more neurodiverse to include children who aren’t ‘neurotypical’, and what a play-rich environment looks like.
  • This time, Kerry shows how to move to a play-rich and pro-neurodiversity framework through observation and support. 
  • Each strategy is broken down with a case study to put it into context, helping you deepen your understanding of what SEND play looks like.

Part 1 of this series explored the different ways to support children in their play through a neurodiverse lens. Just because we don’t understand their play doesn’t make it any less valid, and this is crucial in provisioning an inclusive environment for all children in our Early Years settings. 

This time, Kerry Payne discusses four key strategies that support practitioners to develop their observation skills for SEND. Research led by the Froebel Trust in 2019 found that children do not always receive the same amount of observational attention, meaning that many traces of learning can be lost. This included children who used less spoken language, were more active, and those who did not have clear outcomes (products) of play. 

By developing a pro-neurodiversity lens, practitioners commit to observing more deeply and in doing so support children to flourish. 

1. Reframe your thinking

Practitioners will often approach me asking for advice about moving away from the deficit model to SEND. It is important that when we carry out observations of children with SEND, we use a celebratory framework. This means that we capture a holistic profile of the child's development instead of focusing on what they’re lacking.

The steps to this are as follows:

  • Interests
  • Strengths
  • Differences (+ difficulties)
  • Areas of Need 

Once we have established this framework, we encourage a more positive mindset when thinking about SEND support. It’s important to remember that this framework is not about introducing more paperwork formats, but this can be built into your everyday planning systems. 

Celebratory Framework with prompts

From the above diagram, you can see that this framework for thinking helps us to reflect more positively and proactively about children’s traits, personality and characteristics of play and learning. This provides the springboard for effective support. It helps us to reposition the child with SEND from ‘problem’ to learner. This framework also helps us to have celebratory discussions with parents and families who may be accustomed to only ever speaking about their children on their “worst days”. 

2. Play mapping and staying curious 

It would be unwise to suggest that we should overlook all concerns and simply embrace differences. We have an important responsibility to support children and ensure they have access to the right support if they need it.

However, don't be too quick to turn play traits into symptoms. The case study below highlights how play mapping can support your curiosity while also making sure you keep possible concerns in mind.

Case study: From flitting to play mapping
  • Samira is the key person to Umar, who is currently in preschool. He is an affectionate child and is often described as energetic. Samira explained that Umar appears to flit between different activities, never staying in one place for too long, so it is hard to pin down his specific interests.
  • In discussion with a more experienced colleague, Samira was advised to do a play mapping task. The colleague explained that when a child has SEND, it can often be assumed that they do not have the attention to remain in play, but Samira might gain a deeper understanding of Umar's motivations through play mapping. Play mapping simply involves following a child's play and mapping it out.
  • Play Mapping can be completed several ways, for example, drawing out a simple floor plan of your early years setting and then drawing lines to indicate where they go, return to, leave and stay. You can also complete short video observations, and in some cases, early years settings will provide go-pros for children which are amazing for seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
  • When Samira did this, she had some interesting findings. She noticed that Umar would frequently return to the construction area and would linger. She saw that he would move away or appear to flit between spaces when the construction area became busy with other children or if other children accessed a certain box of blocks.
  • Samira decided to expand the space slightly and added some partitioning making it a more dynamic space. She also collected a small treasure basket of what appeared to be Umar's favourite blocks. With these adaptations, Umar began spending more time in this area, and it was from here Samira was able to identify his interest in block building and begin to add more provocations to his play.
  • Samira also used the play mapping to identify areas that Umar avoided and those which were distressing. She noticed that busy spaces can lead to sensory meltdowns, and when this happens, he would sometimes hit out. Samira ensured that she remained observant to the signs of a meltdown and provided calming spaces for him to retreat to and decompress. She included resources that soothed him, such as a the sensory balls and weighted toys. 

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3. Video observations

If at first you don't observe, try and watch it again. 

In the busy chaos of nursery life, there are times when we miss the many traces of learning that are going on for children. Video observations are a useful way to find those traces of learning. These videos can be short and sweet, or slightly longer. 

Having the time and space to watch back and reflect can help you spot things that may not have been clear in the moment. They are also a good opportunity to share with children to see their learning in action. 

If you don’t feel comfortable with video observations, request some from the parents - they often have a multitude of videos of their children. This can also be beneficial as you observe children in different contexts. 

4. Joint Observations

When we are supporting a child with SEND, we may struggle to understand the personal meanings of their play. This can be frustrating, particularly if we are unsure how best to support and scaffold their learning. 

Conducting joint observations with a trusted colleague, SENCO, or parent can be an invaluable process for developing a network of perspectives that may differ from your own. Joint observations often have parallels and many differences as we each observe through our own frame of reference and experience. 

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Case study: It takes two
  • We started to implement short joint observations into our everyday practice, as we felt that our process of observing children had become slightly stale and very driven by development statements. We would combine skill sets, interests and knowledge, and we did this free of any guidance so that we didn't become too reliant on matching children to statements.
  • We noticed joint observations were hugely beneficial for all children, and also expanded our perspectives on children with SEND. During one observation, I was really struggling to see anything of value, and the apprentice said, "but look, she is clearly fascinated by the different pushing and pulling of the door handles and the sounds". The doors made a particular clicking sound, and on further observation, the child was experimenting with the different sounds when she pulled the handle up and back down again.
  • Having someone with fresh, different eyes, ears, hearts, and minds can reveal so many new things, and is an excellent opportunity to build and share our knowledge with one another. 

I believe that we have a huge opportunity in the Early Years to reimagine play, neurodiversity and early intervention. Many of the discussions around embracing differences are important, and even though they’re sometimes uncomfortable, they’re often gateways to growth.

I hope my two-part series article ignited some new thinking, challenged some old, and highlights that inclusion is ever-evolving. 

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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